Alcohol increases the risk of people suffering from heart disease as much as any other well-established risk factors such as diabetes, obesity or smoking. Thousands of heart attacks and heart failure could be avoided each year if alcohol abuse was completely eradicated.
Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the No 1 killer of both men and women around the world. World Health Organisation data suggests that in 2012, 31% of all global deaths were due to CVDs. Thousands suffer heart attacks, congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation each year.
Many risk factors are well known and it is estimated that most cardiovascular diseases could be prevented by changing behaviours such as smoking, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity. Addressing health issues like diabetes and obesity is also key.
Alcohol abuse is less often mentioned, though it is a major risk factor. This is because moderate alcohol consumption has been shown in various studies to lower the risk of heart problems, so there can be confusion regarding the impact that booze has on health.
In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, scientists have shown that alcohol abuse is as important a risk factor as all the others and that reducing alcohol abuse might result in meaningful reductions of heart disease around the world.
Heart attacks, heart failures and atrial fibrillation
The team, led by Gregory M Marcus, from the University of California, San Francisco, used data from a database of all California residents ages 21 and older who received ambulatory surgery, emergency or inpatient medical care in California between 2005 and 2009.
They analysed the data of a total of 14.7 million people, of which 1.8% had received a diagnosis of alcohol abuse (see box). After controlling for other risk factors, the researchers discovered that this was associated with a twofold increased risk of atrial fibrillation, a 1.4-fold increased risk of heart attack and a 2.3-fold increased risk of congestive heart failure. These are similar risks to having diabetes, high blood pressure or being obese.
Marcus said: "We were somewhat surprised to find those diagnosed with some form of alcohol abuse were at significantly higher risk of a heart attack. We hope this data will temper the enthusiasm for drinking in excess, and will avoid any justification for excessive drinking because people think it will be good for their heart. These data pretty clearly prove the opposite."
The good news is that cutting down on the number of people who abuse alcohol could yield important health benefits. The scientists' analysis indicates that completely eradicating alcohol abuse in the US alone would result in over 73,000 fewer atrial fibrillation cases, 34,000 fewer heart attacks, and 91,000 fewer patients with congestive heart failure.
The question is, what effective measures can be implemented to fight alcohol abuse and help people who suffer from it.
What do we call 'alcohol abuse'?
Alcohol abuse means drinking excessively – more at least than the units of alcohol consumption recommended by health authorities and that are considered 'low risk'. In the UK, the NHS recommends not regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week. A unit is half a pint of normal-strength lager or 25ml of spirits.
Frequent alcohol abuse can lead to alcohol dependence - or alcoholism - an addiction that is very hard to treat and leads to a range of health problems, including heart disease.